Kirwan MLK film inspires local companies

From the July 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

Columbus companies are using a film produced by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University to facilitate diversity discussions among employees. 

“A Reading of the Letter From Birmingham Jail,” directed by Jamaal Bell, director of communications for the Kirwan Institute, features Columbus business-community leaders, adjudicators and political figures reading the landmark civil rights document, penned in 1963 by Martin Luther King Jr. Among the film’s featured readers are L Brands’ founder, Chairman and CEO Les Wexner; Columbus Foundation President and CEO Doug Kridler; United Way of Central Ohio President and CEO Janet Jackson; Moody Nolan CEO Curtis Moody and OSU Athletic Director Gene Smith.

After an initial screening of the film, Robert M. Franklin Jr., president emeritus of Morehouse College, praised it as a “powerful public witness” and a “cosigning” of King’s Letter by Columbus’s civic leaders.

The film project began in Birmingham, Ala., where Sharon Davies, Kirwan executive director, was researching her book Rising Road. Davies and Jim Baggett, head archivist of the Birmingham Public Library, planned a public reading of King’s Letter on the 50th anniversary of its writing. The idea to film Columbus leaders as they read it aloud evolved from there.

The project strengthened and forged relationships between the Kirwan Institute and the wider Columbus business community, says Bell. For those executives in the film, he believes the reading made public their sense of corporate responsibility in terms of economic equality and workforce diversity.

“That message could be meaningful, especially for businesses that have foundations attached to them like L Brands,” says Bell. “It can strengthen their mission, (help them) say ‘that’s why we do what we do.’”

With the help of the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium and the United Way, the Kirwan Institute scheduled initial screenings earlier this year. The film inspired dialogue on racial equality between audience members. Pretty soon, word spread among corporate diversity officers and human resources departments around town. Cardinal Health, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Ashland, Inc., the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and the Ohio State University human resources department all reached out to Kirwan to schedule in-house employee screenings.

“The film articulates the struggles of different groups in their pursuit of equal rights,” says Aida Sabo, vice president of diversity and inclusion for Cardinal Health, via email. “We are planning to use this as a learning opportunity in the context of inclusion.”

Cardinal has already hosted one screening; Sabo’s office is working with the Kirwan Institute to bring the film back to Cardinal’s Dublin HQ for more. Cardinal’s diversity department encourages the company’s employee resource groups to find ways to integrate the film into their programming.

“Human resource officers have a very hard job building a very diverse office (and) at the same time hiring the best people they can find,” says Bell. HR departments that have hosted screening have reported to him that employees leave the screenings “talking about what (race) means to them at the job that they have today.”

Companies are invited to schedule their own screening, or tap the institute’s additional resources and research capabilities. Learn more online at or by calling 614-688-5429.